Accelerating learning

One of my pet beliefs is that learning in the 21st century will further accelerate. By 2114 (one hundred years from this writing), folks will look back at how we live now in 2014 and smile. How primitive! Just as we look back at how folks lived in 1914 (just before the first great war).  Indeed, if I am correct about a further acceleration of learning, the differences will be even more striking to those judging us from 2114 than what we see looking back one hundred years to 1914.

Why do I think so? Well, it is the historical trend. We live in the 2% period of mankind’s history marked by an ever increasing pace of learning. During the first 98%, btw,  we had not yet invented civilization. That 2% period started around 5,000 years ago. And yet, most of what we value in civilization now was invented less than 500 years ago. That is the historical trend I that I am talking about. Indeed, even 500 years to us seems like long, long ago.

But there is more. Learning was mainly taking over the great thinking from the past. This is what the Europeans did when they rediscovered the manuscripts from ancient Greece. And this is still how we orient our educational systems – assuming that it takes years and years to achieve sufficient mastery of past knowledge before going out into the world. We are just now, however, realizing that taking over things is just the starting point. And we are just starting to re-think how universal education — btw, a relatively new technology — should work (at least incorporating soft skills). And we are more sensitive now that learning is a social process where we add to the so called “pool of knowledge” by what we do. It is now almost conventional wisdom that to develop great ideas, we need great exchanges of ideas. That more and better exchanges (diversity) is a social good in itself. And finally, with internet, we have what could become the ultimate idea exchange mechanism. So, we could be just at the beginning of a revolution of “ideation”.

And there is more. Mankind got interested in using scientific method to better understand the world around him around 300 years ago. Since then, we have gotten more adept at incorporating this method into how produce stuff. We now routinely use technology to make living easier. This has happened so quickly that we take for granted that technology will evolve at an ever increasing rate. Matt Ridley goes into this in his TED talk – about how much less work is required now to buy an hour of evening light than one hundred years ago.

And there is more. We are just starting to realize that we can apply scientific method to assess and predict our own behavior. Instead of treating people as just “good” or “bad”, we begin to see that we are both, and more or less good depending on social factors. In other words, it is getting easier to be good. And we more regularly test assumptions about why we do things — including why we buy things. We see that we are less rational and more emotional than we thought. As we get better at this sort of testing, we will get better at anticipating what things add value and what things waste our time. Rick Smith writes about this for Forbes. Rick writes from a producer or service provider perspective, but his line of thought applies equally to producers and consumers.

This last point is pretty interesting. As computers get better at doing things, they will eventually do everything better than we can – except figure out why we want things done. And Rick Smith’s accelerated learning addresses just that issue. As we get better at understanding the assumptions behind what we do, we will eliminate a lot of waste.

So what will the tend look like? The 20th century saw more and more people get into “consumerism”. We could afford to buy more leisure and we did. The 21st century is likely to see more and more people get into “ideation”. That is, it will get easier to participate in adding value to people around us and we will do so. That is an optimistic scenario and one that I believe in.


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